MERIDIAN -- There was no lack of adversity for the Rocky Mountain football team in the two-week build up to the 2017 season.
On July 24, Grizzlies head coach Scott Criner announced he was leaving to fill the vacant athletic director position at Eagle High School. As surprising as the move was, the players knew how to handle it.
"It was a bit of a shock to most of the team," recalled senior running back Carter Kuehl. "But we came together and we talked it through."
"I feel like right now it helped us," said senior lineman Keeghan Freeborn. "We're bonding more as a team. [We're] able to take more ownership of the team realizing stuff can change."
The search for Criner's replacement did not take long. On July 31, long-time defensive coordinator Chris Culig, who spent a majority of the last 14 seasons serving on the same staff as Criner, was promoted to head coach.
"I think that everybody just kind of picked up the slack, to be honest," said Culig. "Coach Criner always had a motto, 'Next guy up.' In this case, the next guy up is a coach."
The decision to promote from within has kept program on track; the familiarity between Culig and his players allowed for a transition that seemed effortless.
"I think it helped a ton," Culig said. "I'm comfortable and they're comfortable with me."
"Culig is awesome," added Freeborn. "He's been with us forever."
In addition to the coaching change, the Grizzlies did not know if senior quarterback Will McMullin would be eligible to play this fall. McMullin transferred to Rocky Mountain from Boise High School last spring and was initially ruled ineligible by the Idaho High School Activities Association (IDHSAA).
However, on August 2nd, McMullin won an appeal with the IDHSAA. With two years of starting experience under his belt at Boise High, the Grizzlies immediately gain the most experienced passer in the 5A SIC.
"It's a relief to finally have that finally over and just move on from that," McMullin said.
"Definitely, my game has elevated since I've been here," McMullin added about the chance to play at Rocky Mountain. "The goal for me it to help this team to go back to state. I want to be the best I can be and be the best for this team."
McMullin will not just be handed the starting job though. Junior quarterback Tre Page and two other guys will also push for playing time.
"We have, like, four quarterbacks and they all have different gifts," described Culig. "(But) there's four guys battling [for the starting spot]."
Regardless of who is under-center for the Grizzlies, they will share the backfield with one of the best running backs in the state. After running for 1,997 yards as a junior last season, Air Force-commit Carter Kuehl returns for his senior season.
Kuehl proved he was the fastest kid in the state last spring, winning both the 100m and 200m at the Idaho State Track and Field Championships in May.
But at 5-foot-6, 185 pounds, he is also one of the toughest.
"What I think people don't understand is that he's tough," Culig said. "He's got a ton of desire."
Lining up in front of Kuehl will be senior lineman Keeghan Freeborn, a two-way standout that committed to Boise State this summer. Freeborn is coming out of a junior season in which he earned first-team all-state honors.
"I feel like I bring a little bit of work ethic to this team," Freeborn said. "I like being out there and getting the team going."
"He's a difference maker," Culig added "He's the most dominant d-lineman I've been around in a long time."
Given all that Rocky Mountain has already been through, it is impressive to hear that the Grizzlies have started fall camp strong.
"I'm excited. I'm getting the tingles already," Freeborn said with a smile. "It's clicking for everybody. No one is above anybody else on the team. We're all together as one."
"We look really sharp right now," said Culig.
It is the type of start that is building team confidence. Considering the Grizzlies have played in the 5A state semi-finals in each of the last four season, expectations are high for the program. But the 2017 team is beginning to believe that they can live up to the hype.
"I think everybody is here because they like having high expectations," Culig said. "I don't think it's foreign to them."
"You can't doubt yourself in the beginning," said Freeborn. "You have to aim high and achieve what you want to achieve."
Last 5 Seasons
2016: 9-3 (Lost in 5A state semi-finals)
2015: 11-1 (Won 5A state championships)
2014: 8-3 (Lost in 5A state semi-finals)
2013: 10-2 (Lost in 5A state semi-finals)
2012: 6-4 (Lost in 5A state quarter-finals)
RB - Carter Kuehl, Senior
OL/DT - Keeghan Freeborn, Senior
CB - JT Ti'a, Senior
S - Trevor Manu, Senior
8/26 - at Spanish Springs (Sparks, Nev)
9/1 - vs Capital
9/8 - at Meridian
9/15 - at Mountain View
9/22 - vs Timberline
9/29 - at Borah
10/5 - at Kuna
10/13 - vs Eagle
10/20 - vs Centennial